Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Can persons with disabilities become successful entrepreneurs

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By Marina Marwein

The opening lines of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from the “Tale of Two Cities,” seems like an apt description of what is happening in India for the welfare of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), particularly in the 8 states of North East India.
In 1995, the Government of India had passed a landmark act, ‘The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995’ – a significant step for ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities and their full participation in nation building. In 2016, this Act was replaced by another called, ‘The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act’ fulfilling the obligations to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), based on an evolving and dynamic concept extending the original 7 disabilities to 21 types mostly medical.
But passing laws alone is not enough. Despite much talk, the public have remained apathetic and people with disabilities remain marginalized. They still lack access to education, healthcare, employment, housing, and systems of social protection and remain susceptible to stigma, discrimination and even violence. Training programs of relevance or facilities of access like ramps, elevators, and accessible restrooms are yet to see the light of day. The disabled are still left high and dry.
A situational analysis carried out in 2014 by Mobility India revealed several key challenges where many schemes for inclusive learning and equipping the disabled and rehabilitation remained on paper while well publicised meetings and seminars were reportedly successfully organized for the leaders and experts. In her famous book, “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen dramatically portrays the conflicts of two warring parties, neither willing to give up their cherished selfishness and self-centeredness. This is the ground scenario regarding the support for the disabled in India and in the North East where the public are indifferent towards any effort at helping the disabled and thereby, unintentionally contribute to the resultant stigma and prejudices.
In 2023, the UN headlines screamed that India has surpassed China as the most populated nation in the world, with an estimated population of 1.427 billion. Cause for celebration? It simply means we will have more unemployment, more sicknesses, more poverty, illiteracy, and disabilities. Census 2011 and recently held 76th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) estimates the prevalence of disability at 2.2% in India. Multiply this by the population and we will know how many millions have a disability that requires significant attention and help. The best statistical estimates mention the number of disabled as of date as nearly 3 crores which is a daunting figure. Most are looked down upon by society and denied training, support, and guidance to make them useful citizens who can contribute significantly and ‘build a fairer and healthier world.’ But a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step, which if it had been diligently implemented over the past two decades since the Act was passed might have paid much dividends. Unfortunately that never happened!
Considering just the North Eastern region of India with 8 states which had an enumerated population of 44 million in 2011 census, the total disabled @ 15% will be 6 million disabled, and if only significant disability of 2.2% was considered, we will have to care for at least 800,000 people. These numbers would have surely gone up by now. Taking Meghalaya state alone, the significant number of disabled as per 2011 census was 64,000 which would have grown to at least 80,000 in 2024. In this depressing darkness, do we see any light at the end of the tunnel?
That said, within the spectacular Khasi and Garo Hills of Meghalaya, an organization called the Bethany Society a non- profit, secular, registered, charitable society established in 1981 stands out for its work with and for people with disabilities. Through Roilang Livelihood Academy, the society has pioneered efficient training to empower persons with disabilities giving them skills thereby enabling them to have start-ups for successful entrepreneurships. Over the last three and a half decades, this organization has helped over 10,000 persons with disabilities. I was privileged to spend a year in Bethany Society in an environment of observing and interacting with trainees and teachers. I had ventured to publish a small, practical training manual with 10 chapters to motivate and help any reader and well-wisher to volunteer and help in training persons with disability to become successful entrepreneurs.
After the first 2 chapters on introduction and definitions, one chapter each describes a particular disability, such as visual, auditory, locomotor, intellectual and mental, the challenges and solutions, assistive devices, and modification of training environment and listing the possible trades the graduates can follow to become successful entrepreneurs. Some guidelines are also given for teaching a few soft skills such as accountancy, management, social psychology, and communications in order that the graduate is well equipped to be a good business person.
In today’s economic scenario with inflation skyrocketing, the products produced by persons with disabilities could be relevant, affordable, and timely. They include disposable domestic items, horticulture products, vegetables and fruits (to name a few). There are unlimited opportunities to follow trades that will be most helpful to the public. The manual also spells out the qualifications needed for teachers and suggests a methodology for evaluating the training program. It ends with a chapter on future developments. A selected reading list and names of few agencies working with Persons with Disabilities are provided.
This manual encourages individuals and organizations to take up the challenge of training persons with disabilities and one need not address all disabilities but focus on one or two conditions, which will be great progress. The Bethany Society encourages community based inclusive approach and the CLAN (Community Level Accessibility Network) and CLEAN (Community Led Environment Action Network) are living examples of successful training. The Bethany Society motto is “Inclusion as a value” which means “No one is left behind”. This writer was impressed by their sincerity, dedication, skills, and commitment, and hope many more would follow the leadership role of Bethany Society.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the word ‘disabilities’ is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions where an impairment is a problem in body function or structure. An activity limitation is a difficulty encountered in executing a task or action. A participation restriction is a problem experienced in involvement in life situations. It is well to remember Impairment +Barriers= Disability and Impairment + Access=Empowerment
Primarily, persons with disabilities want one thing from us- to make it possible for them to contribute with self-respect. The law promises them equality of opportunity and accessibility. But it is sad that our practices deny them what the law promises.
Secondly, persons with disabilities have special abilities and proven capabilities as seen from performances in fields of sports and arts. Each year, the Government of India celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on December 3, as established by the United Nations in 1992, to recognize outstanding achievements by the disabled. It is inspiring to see how persons with disabilities have overcome various odds to excel and achieve. Significantly more can be helped than what is portrayed, and we need to work on this challenge.
The trends in current research endeavours globally and within India, on use of improved technology and latest medical knowledge sounds promising and exciting for the future of training persons with disabilities. These developments would also promote inclusive learning as a reality for persons with disabilities to have equitable work opportunities, dignity, and status in any setting.
I end this article on an optimistic note applying the sentiments of the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr, ‘I have a dream.’ He expressed a wish for the disadvantaged persons in the US to the situation in India for the disabled. As a society we have a critical role to provide the stimulus and means for educationists, community organisations and motivated individuals to take the initiative in supporting disabled persons become self-reliant and enabling them to earn their own livelihoods through an entrepreneurial spirit and strategy. I hope readers will be inspired by this article and take up training persons with disabilities to become successful entrepreneurs.
Let us echo this wish and dream of a day when ‘no one will be left behind’. People with disability will work hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder to make India a “developed” country and not permanently a “developing” country. Let us take the wakeup call seriously and show the world what we can achieve through our dedication and commitment.
(The writer is Faculty, School of Economics, Commerce & Management Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong)

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